The Creeper, Playhouse, London <!-- none onestar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

It's eight years since Ian Richardson trod the boards and one can only surmise that his judgement has deserted him in choosing The Creeper as the vehicle for his comeback. Even as a period curiosity or a camp collector's item, Pauline Macaulay's mid-Sixties "psychological thriller" fails to pass muster. True, it allows Richardson to show off his talent for delectably dry, quizzical irony in the role of Edward Kimberly, a millionaire eccentric who expects more from his string of young "gentleman's companions" than anyone sane could bear. But why is he lending his abilities to preposterous, dated hokum?

The play focuses on the triangular relationship between Kimberly, Maurice (Oliver Dimsdale), the former Austin Reed salesman who is his latest companion, and Michel (Alan Cox), the queeny, aggrieved predecessor who got the push. The proceedings start promisingly, with Kimberly interviewing the awkward, uptight newcomer and expounding on the demands of the job. These involve being on hand the whole time (for 4am card games, midnight piano recitals etc) in return for pocket money, a lavish lifestyle, and gifts that must be surrendered on leaving the post. Sex is not required ("it's much more satisfying in my head"), but a capacity for alcohol is.

Hopes that the play will turn into a fully-fledged exercise in gay Gothic are gradually dashed. Indeed, its attitude to homosexuality is slightly suspect. Kimberly's mother, it emerges, abandoned him when he was 11, causing a lifelong aversion to women. He and the young man discover that both of them were left with difficult fathers. We're asked to believe that Maurice, much to the jealousy of Michel, starts to be a credit to his new quasi-paternal master, even taking up the piano to please him. At the same time, Kimberly, with his old family retainer (Harry Towb) and his creeper-choked trees, is conscious of symbolising an England that is ready for the chop.

It's all too absurd for words. And, though luxuriously cast and handsomely designed, Bill Bryden's revival underlines the extraordinary lack of tension. Oliver Dimsdale makes an impact with the damaged ingénu side of Maurice, but generates very little sense of menace.

They don't write plays like The Creeper any more and, after this, they won't be reviving them either.

Booking to 22 April (0870 060 6631)